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by Avigdor Haselkorn


The deployment of military forces abroad by a foreign power is often intended to defend its local allies and deter its enemies. But in the Middle East, especially since the second Gulf War, a curious strategic paradox is unfolding. Accordingly, the more extensive the U.S. military involvement is in the region, the more Israel's maneuvering space and freedom of action are constrained. At the same time, the impact of the robust American presence vis-a-vis Israel's regional enemies has been negligible.

Not only is Washington more determined than ever to prevent an Israeli preemptive attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, but lately even the approval of plans by the Jerusalem municipality for new housing in East Jerusalem has reportedly brought grumbles from the U.S. Central Command. The latter supposedly sees any tension between Israel and the Palestinians as inimical to the well-being of its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, the deterrent effect on radicals like Syria, Iran and their allies of the introduction of over 200,000 U.S. soldiers, backed by the most advanced air and naval assets, into Iraq and Afghanistan, is yet to be felt.

By all indications, the American troop buildup failed to deter Iran's (and before that, Syria's) nuclear program. Additionally, the re-arming by Tehran and Damascus of another implacable Israeli and U.S. foe — Hezbollah — with ever more lethal, accurate and long-range weapons, has proceeded unhindered since 2006. Iran has also taken action against U.S. forces themselves. For example, Gen. David Petraeus, then the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, said in October 2007: "They [the Iranians] are responsible for providing the weapons, the training, the funding and in some cases the direction for operations that have indeed killed U.S. soldiers."

The same month, the U.S. Treasury Department announced economic sanctions against the Al-Quds Force, the elite unit of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), for being the "Iranian regime's primary instrument for providing lethal support to the Taliban ... to support anti-U.S. and anti-coalition activity in Afghanistan." In freezing the assets of nine IRGC-affiliated entities and five IRGC-affiliated individuals, among them the commander of the Al-Quds Force, the treasury accused Iran of providing the Taliban with a wide range and substantial quantity of weaponry and ammunition.

Rather than deterring radicals, the continued deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has been used as leverage against America. By threatening to target their regional bases, Iran is in effect keeping these contingents hostage and acting to dissuade any military undertaking against its nuclear facilities. For instance, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC commander, said in a June 2008 interview: "We believe that the Americans are more vulnerable than the Israelis, and the presence of their forces in the region, not far from Iran, is part of this vulnerability." The bottom line is that Middle Eastern radicals have been able to turn the tables on America, and indirectly, Israel as well. Instead of Iran and Syria feeling hemmed in by the expanded presence of U.S. forces on their borders, it is Jerusalem that is increasingly fearful of a multi-pronged attack. Rather than keeping regional radicals in check, the U.S. deployment has become a handicap for Israel.

The setback for Israel is due to U.S. efforts to pacify Iraq and Afghanistan by co-opting local adversaries, coupled by the Obama administration's principal shift toward an "extended hand" policy vis-a-vis its regional enemies. In turn, any Israeli military initiative is viewed in Washington as "unhelpful," if not downright dangerous, as it may cause an Arab/Muslim backlash against America and endanger U.S. regional assets. Last September, Zbigniew Brzezinski, president Jimmy Carter's national security adviser in the 1970s, even went so far as recommending that U.S. pilots shoot down Israeli aircraft if they crossed into Iraq's airspace to attack Iran's nuclear facilities and refused to turn back.

As a result of this approach, the U.S.-Israeli relationship today is one of mutual liability. Israel is increasingly perceived as a strategic liability in Washington, because its actions threaten to derail the courting of Arab/Muslim radicals deemed central to America's global "war" on terror. At the same time, the United States is a growing burden on Israel, given the Obama administration's efforts to deny it the strategic initiative that is vital for preserving its national security.

In hindsight, the first Gulf War model, which saw the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq as soon as the guns fell silent — even though Saddam Hussein remained in power, a move that was roundly criticized in Israel — was more in tandem with long-range Israeli security interests than the model of the second conflict.

Ironically, Jerusalem and the Obama administration now share a desire to see the U.S. troops return home: The sooner America's soldiers leave Iraq, the quicker the two countries' security interests will become more compatible and bilateral relations will be more harmonious.

Those in Israel who advocate formal ties with NATO should remember that even a geographically remote ground presence of an allied military in the region inhibited Israel's freedom of action, eroded its deterrent posture and strained its ties with its foremost friend.

Avigdor Haselkorn is the author of "The Continuing Storm: Iraq, Poisonous Weapons and Deterrence" (Yale University Press).

This article appeared April 11, 2010 in Haaretz


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